Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe: A Memoir of Processualism to Neohistorical Anthropology

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe: A Memoir of Processualism to Neohistorical Anthropology

Article excerpt

Two Vignettes

1. At the SEAC meeting in Little Rock back in 2006, I happened to be standing behind Jim Knight in the food line for BBQ at Toltec. We were discussing odds and ends, when he turned to me and said, "One of my grad students at Alabama recently asked me what I thought about Charlie Cobb's work, and I had to ask 'which Charlie Cobb?"' We had a good laugh, because we knew that my work has been far from theoretically and topically consistent. But as I will lay out in the remainder of my discussion, there has been a method to my madness.

2. When Knight extended the invitation to participate in the "What I Believe" session in the summer of 2012,1 happened to be in the middle of an email dialogue with Reinhard Bernbeck, a colleague from my days in the Department of Anthropology at Binghamton University. Bernbeck, a widely respected Near Eastern specialist and purveyor of theory (e.g., Bernbeck 2008; Bernbeck and McGuire 2011), was on a fellowship in Berlin. As a tangent to his usual line of work, he had decided to embark on an excavation of a Nazi work camp at Templehof Air Base outside Berlin. He had asked me about possible references involving the archaeology of camps of any sort. One of the books I suggested was Archaeologies of Internment (Myers and Moshenka 2011), an edited volume covering a range of time periods and settings.

Bernbeck responded that he found the approach encapsulated in this volume and others like it to be problematic. To summarize, he said it was a disservice to victims of violence to compile comparative studies and make generalizing statements about historical events that were so appalling and affected individuals in such a personal and traumatic way. I was a tad surprised by his response in that Bernbeck has been a champion of structural approaches that favor generality, particularly those of a Marxist bent. Indeed, in the past two decades he has been a critic of what he believes is an overemphasis on agency and related approaches, such as identity studies (Bernbeck 1999; Pollock and Bernbeck 2007). But I think his concerns pinpoint a common issue yet to be resolved by over a century of anthropological theorizing: When should history take the fore, and when should generalizing and comparison be the priority? Moreover, are these two enterprises of such a different nature that they are inherently incompatible?

These questions have certainly been one of my central struggles in developing theory and applying it toward archaeological problems-and to a large degree it likely accounts for the cacophony of approaches in my writings that Jim Knight has recognized. I have found the Braudelian longue durée to be particularly useful for thinking about broad patterns of exchange in the Southeast (Cobb 1991) yet have employed the Ginzbergian notion of micro-histories to address finegrained aspects of the Mississippian emergence (Cobb 2015). I believe that historical ecology is useful for thinking about similarities in the ways that humans interact with the environment (Cobb and Butler 2010) but consider symbolism and meaning important for addressing particularist aspects of Native American world view (Cobb and Drake 2008).

Although I couch this theoretical tension in my writings in dyadic terms, I think it more accurate to say that archaeological approaches to understanding the past tend to fall into three categories, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive (and each of which encapsulates considerable variation) (Figure 1). In the nomothetic comer are those theories that focus on law-like principles: behavioral archaeology, selectionist approaches, and optimal foraging, as a few examples. In a second comer rests the empirical generalization. This kind of approach involves broad statements about the organization of human behavior or beliefs, but in some sense they can be linked to history. So, for instance, Marxists have relied on modes of production; neoevolutionists have employed band, tribe, chiefdom state; and historical structuralists may rely on frameworks such as the Georgian world view seen in James Deetz's (1977) In Small Things Forgotten. …

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